2024 Big 12 Softball preview: Oklahoma State positioned to contend once again

Mar. 6—It's hard to believe that 19 games have already come and gone in the 2024 Oklahoma State softball season and conference play is already upon us. With the conference expanding from seven to 10 participating softball programs, conference play is starting a full two weeks earlier than normal to fit in all the games.

As the Cowgirls prepare for the opening Big 12 series this coming weekend at Baylor, let's dive into the conference as a whole.

In years past, it's been Oklahoma and Oklahoma State battling it out for the top two spots with Texas serving as a contender and the remainder of the conference having practically no chance at the top.

This will be the final season with OU and Texas in the conference before they depart for the SEC, and those three teams are once again at the top of the conference standings and the rankings. Beyond that, the conference looks to be more competitive top to bottom in 2024.

"It's as good as any other conference out there, period," OSU head coach Kenny Gajewski said. "I don't care what anybody says. I've gotten to see a lot of these teams, and I know most of our teams are playing really competitive schedules."

In total, the conference has four teams ranked in the NFCA Top 25 after nonconference play. Three of those four are in the top four, with Oklahoma and Texas occupying No. 1 and No. 2 while Oklahoma State sits at No. 4.

The Cowgirls' upcoming opponent, Baylor, is the other team in the poll at No. 19 (though some rankings have Baylor listed as high as No. 10). The Bears are coming off their first 40-win season since a WCWS appearance in 2017, and they are returning all but one starter from last season. With star pitcher Dariana Orme and preseason All-Big 12 back selectee Shaylon Govan both returning from injuries, Baylor has higher expectations than any in the past seven years.

In the Big 12 preseason poll, the Sooners were picked as unanimous favorites to win the league with Texas picked second and OSU at third. Here's the complete look at the preseason poll, with current team records listed beside each team:

1. Oklahoma (18-1)

2. Texas (18-1)

3. Oklahoma State (17-2)

4. Baylor (12-3)

5. UCF (11-7)

6. Texas Tech (17-4)

7. BYU (14-4)

8. Kansas (13-5-1)

9. Iowa State (9-10)

10. Houston (15-5)

This season is the first one with BYU, Houston and UCF added to the mix. Central Florida made the NCAA Tournament last season while in the American Athletic Conference and BYU was in the National Invitational Softball Tournament.

The Cowgirls will make trips to BYU and Houston this season and will host UCF at Cowgirl Stadium.

As for the rest of the conference slate, the Cowgirls will host Texas, Texas Tech and Kansas while traveling to Iowa State and Oklahoma.

Texas Tech has impressed early on, returning seven starters from last season's team which won five games against ranked opponents.

OU and Texas have national respect as the two best teams in the country. The Sooners are looking to four-peat in the WCWS this season and add Kelly Maxwell from Oklahoma State in place of Jordy Bahl (transferred to Nebraska).

Oklahoma also returns key bats like Jayda Coleman, Tiara Jennings and Alyssa Brito.

As for Texas, they bolster top-five rankings in nearly every major offensive and pitching statistic through a month of play.

The Longhorns are led by one of the deepest pitching staffs in the country, with Citlaly Gutierrez, Mac Morgan and Teagan Kavan all having ace stuff. Offensively, Reese Atwood is already at 10 home runs this year and eight batters are over .390 in batting average.

I think they're the two best teams in the country so far," Gajewski said of OU and Texas. "However you want to rank them is fine."

The major difference between this season and past seasons is the battle-testedness of the league entering conference play. Between the conference's 10 teams, a total of 26 games were played against currently ranked teams in nonconference games.

Though the conference has some dark horse competitors and a larger schedule, the expectation for the league remains the same as always — a three-team slugfest for the crown.

The Cowgirls begin Big 12 play on Friday at 6:30 p.m. against the Baylor Bears in Waco, Texas. The first of 27 conference games, all leading up to the Big 12 Championship, which starts on May 8.